‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Review: Skye Faces Her Future and Past in ‘Afterlife’
Recap and review of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Season 2 Episode 16 – Afterlife:
On Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., revelations abound as the mysteries pile up, creating a delicate system of questions producing answers that spawn only more questions. “Afterlife” is a twist-heavy episode that doesn’t answer a whole lot about the overarching mysteries of this season, but it succeeds largely because it keeps the story moving at an invigorating pace, so that the gaps in storytelling aren’t as noticeable.
“Afterlife” is essentially a story that focuses on the origins and evolution of Skye (Chloe Bennet). In being brought to Gordon’s mysterious camp, colloquially known as “Afterlife,” Skye is groomed to begin developing her abilities and completing her transition. There’s a lot of vague talk of unlocking one’s “Gift,” and even vaguer talk of “Elders” to whom Gordon (Jamie Harris) must answer, as well as the added shadiness surrounding what purpose, exactly, this training is intended to serve. Normally, I’d hate an episode for being this murky in its narrative, since it seems Skye is simply being shuffled from one non-answer to another. But I didn’t have as much of a problem with it because the non-answers here are presented as part of the process of induction. Lincoln (Luke Mitchell), the Inhuman tasked with helping Skye transition, tells her as much as he can within limits: she’s one-of-a-kind, since many of the people in their compound are descendants who’ve been waiting for years to ascend to “terragenesis”. A case like Skye’s, in which she bypassed the evolutionary waiting line and jumped several levels ahead by making contact with the Diviner in a Kree Temple, has been unheard of for thousands of years. So Skye isn’t exactly popular at Afterlife. But the episode develops a connection between Skye and Lincoln, who has the ability to manipulate matter around him. Lincoln is presented as the flip side of the coin from someone with a more drastic terragenesis like Raina (Ruth Negga). He’s a normal guy on the outside, but gifted with extraordinary powers. And although Skye might see that gift as a curse, it’s Lincoln’s job to help her recognize the potential this gift instills in her. In essence, he’s the ideal middle ground between someone like Skye (a novice in fear of her own powers) and Raina (someone who’s embraced her change, but has yet to discard the self-loathing that comes with it). Lincoln has embraced his change, but he doesn’t carry any fear or disgust over his condition. He’s completed his transition, and can see the beauty in the difference. But not so with Skye or Raina — hence, why Gordon brought them to the Afterlife.
And yet, that wasn’t just Gordon’s call. As becomes obvious at roughly a third of the way into the episode, Skye’s mother is alive. It’s not really explained how Jiaying (Dichen Lachman) is still alive, nor does the episode explore just how long Cal (Kyle MacLachlan) has known, since he doesn’t exactly seem surprised to see her when she comes to visit him in captivity. Cal essentially pulls a “See? I told you so” when Jiaying comes to tell him that the transformed human Gordon brought in was their daughter after all, although Skye is still completely unaware of just who Jiaying is. This is where solid casting comes into play, as Dichen Lachman bears a reasonable enough resemblance to Chloe Bennet that you could see how this could be her mother, and yet they look different enough that it doesn’t shatter disbelief that Skye wouldn’t pick up on it. Sure, Jiaying acts in an awfully matronly manner, shielding Raina from Skye’s scorn, and then promising to allow her to leave Afterlife if she doesn’t feel a connection with her after a few days of training. But Skye wouldn’t necessarily even consider that her mother would still be alive, so even while Jiaying is here pledging to serve as Skye’s “guide,” it makes sense that Skye wouldn’t pick up on all the subtext that such an offer carries with it. To have such a massive revelation hiding in plain sight right in front of Skye is a pretty great move, as Skye is confronting her past without even realizing it. She’s also confronting her future through the realization of her changed circumstances. As Lincoln explains, terragenesis is irreversible. Skye will be like this for the rest of her life. Her ability to deal with that is entirely up to her: she can either embrace her present and future, or spend the rest of her life mourning the past that was lost. Things can never go back to normal now, and the sooner Skye accepts that, the better off she’ll be.
In a lot of ways, this episode’s theme was on the impermanence of things, and how nothing can really go back to normal. Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) and Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) want Gonzales’s S.H.I.E.L.D. agents gone so things can go back to the way they were, and even Bobbi (Adrianne Palicki) and Mack (Henry Simmons) seem to want this as well, rationalizing that Coulson (Clark Gregg) is a good man who wanted what he thought was best for his S.H.I.E.L.D. team. And yet, everyone recognizes that the past is irretrievable. Things simply can’t go back to the way they were, because S.H.I.E.L.D. has essentially been divided, creating an Us vs. Them mentality. Yes, Gonzales (Edward James Olmos) promises his team will leave once they get Nick Fury’s toolbox open, but we know that’s B.S., every bit as much as Gonzales’s speech to May (Ming-Na Wen), in which he offers her a position on his S.H.I.E.L.D. board under the guise of allowing Coulson to have an advocate on the council. May at least seems to consider the offer, but even while he’s repeatedly referred to as an honorable man, Gonzales has the general feel of a snake oil salesman, someone who believes in his own fraudulent hype. Of course, I could easily be misreading the character, since there’s a lot of different ways to read Olmos’s portrayal. To be honest, I’m far more interested by the notion of Gonzales being a genuinely good man who, much like Coulson, is doing what he honestly believes to be in the best interest of S.H.I.E.L.D., even if it means tearing down a eliminated branch of the organization, as opposed to reincorporating it into a stronger, more unified S.H.I.E.L.D. team. So that’s how I’ve mostly chosen to read his performance so far, although this week’s episode brought about the aforementioned disingenuous feeling, as if Gonzales isn’t really the stickler for justice and principles that he says he is. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t confused, but I’d also be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued by the complexity of Gonzales.
It’s a complexity reflected in Coulson, who spends most of the episode in hiding with Hunter (Nick Blood), keeping one step ahead of Gonzales’s forces by using holograms and icers to trick them the first time, and then commandeering the S.H.I.E.L.D. quinjet with the help of surprise reinforcement, the one-man cavalry known as Agent Mike Peterson/Deathlok (J. August Richards). Few moments this season got me to get up and holler like the return of Peterson did, and it was part of a fabric of similar twists that elevated the episode, from Skye’s mother being alive, to the return of Raina, and even the post-credits stinger in which it’s revealed that the argument between Fitz and Simmons, which results in Simmons telling Fitz that maybe it’s best if he quit S.H.I.E.L.D. after all, was merely a ruse to help him get away with Nick Fury’s cube. Yup, it’s the ol’ swap trick, as Simmons packed away the real cube in Fitz’s things (along with his favorite sandwiches and a lovely note. Those two are adorable). So now Fitz is on the run with something of potentially unfathomable significance, intent on opening it up and finding out what’s inside. Then again, he could simply be hunting down Coulson to see if he can open it himself, but regardless of what the plan is here, it’s seeming like it has an equal chance of ending in disaster as it does of ending well. Ditto Coulson’s plan at the end of the episode: if they’re going to track down Skye, they’re going to need Grant Ward.
“Afterlife” is a twist-heavy episode that adds more questions than it answers. And yet, it still manages to be an engaging hour of TV, as Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. begins bringing all of its disparate puzzle pieces together. We’re quickly nearing the end of the season, and it’s intriguing to see how all of these different story threads will begin to intersect. “Afterlife” isn’t the perfect episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but it’s a compelling one just the same.